1: “Growing up in the hot Las Vegas desert, all I wanted was to be free,” so begins Amy Purdy‘s story.

The day after graduating high school, Amy moved to the mountains in Utah where she pursued her passion for snowboarding.  “For the first time in my life I felt free, independent, and completely in control of my life…”

Until she wasn’t.  

This week we are learning how to tell powerful stories as outlined by Carmine Gallo in his terrific book The Storyteller’s Secret.  Today, we explore the classic “three-act structure.”  

“Enduring stories tend to share a dramatic arc, “observes Professor Paul Zak, “in which a character struggles and eventually finds heretofore unknown abilities and uses these to triumph over adversity.  My work shows that the brain is highly attracted to this story style.”

“Inspiring speakers build a story structure for every important pitch, presentation, meeting, or conversation,” Carmine observes.

2: Act I introduces (1) the protagonist, our hero: Amy, and (2) the setting where our character is living their everyday life: the hot Las Vegas desert.  

In Act 1, we aim to create empathy for our hero.  We want our audience to see themselves in our story: “We identify with characters we care about,” Carmine writes.  All of us relate to Amy’s desire to be free.  We admire her gumption for moving to the mountains the day after graduating from high school.

“The first act also establishes the turning point.  It ends with the introduction of the conflict,” Carmine writes.

“I went home from work early one day with what I thought was the flu, and less than 24-hours later I was in the hospital on life support with less than a two percent chance of living,” Amy shares.

Act 2 is all about struggle and adversity and hardship.  We introduce the villain, in Amy’s case, bacterial meningitis which resulted in the loss of her spleen, part of her kidneys, and both of her legs below her knees.  

At the moment we think things can’t get any worse, they do. 

“I thought the worst was over until weeks later I saw my new legs for the first time,” Amy recollects. “My darkest days were when I went home and had to walk in these metal legs for the first time.  I had to rethink the rest of my life.  I felt so out of control.  I was at the bottom of the barrel.

“I was absolutely physically and emotionally broken,” she remembers.

Somehow Amy forges ahead.  But more challenges await.  Four months later, she wills herself back onto a snowboard.  But she falls and her prosthetic legs, still attached to her snowboard, go flying down the mountain, traumatizing the skiers on the chairlift.  “I was so discouraged,” Amy recalls.

Tension and ultimately triumph are key.  According to Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns: “The road to satisfying experiences must necessarily pass through the terrain of discomfort.”  

In Act 3, the conflict reaches its climax.  Everything seems hopeless.  “Our hero must dig deep within her soul to find the emotional strength to fix the problem and rise above the seemingly insurmountable odds.  This is the climax,” Carmine writes.

Amy refused to quit.  She worked to create prosthetic legs and feet that allowed her to compete in snowboarding.  Today, she is one of the top-ranked adaptive snowboarders in the world, winning a bronze medal at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics. 

At this moment, the hero turns the harrowing experience into a lesson: “My legs haven’t disabled me, if anything they’ve enabled me,” says Amy.  “Instead of looking at our challenges and our limitations as something negative or bad, we can begin to look at them at blessings, magnificent gifts that can be used to ignite our imaginations and help us go further than we ever knew we could go.”

3: Carmine believes the three act structure is the key to telling a great story.  “One of the major findings in this book is the fact that most great storytellers have struggled in their life and they’ve turned their adversity into victory. Their failures make them more interesting because, we are hardwired to love rags-to-riches stories,” he writes.  “We derive meaning from our lives in the form of story.”

Great storytellers “work tirelessly at crafting and delivering an engaging story,” writes Carmine.  “There’s a difference between a story, a good story, and a transformative story that builds trust and inspires people to dream bigger,” Carmine observes.

To tell a transformative story, we are smart to ask ourselves the following questions:

  -Is my hero someone with whom my audience will empathize? 

  -Do I grab my listener with a question or unexpected challenge, a humbling moment when all goes wrong?

  -Does my story involve hardship and struggles, climaxing in a personal transformation where my hero rises above failure?

  -What is the life lesson learned or to call to action that results from the experience?

More tomorrow.


Reflection: Prepare to deliver a story using the three-act structure.

Action:  Deliver it.

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